By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
WASHINGTON – One of the top Oscar nominees for best picture is “American Hustle,” a fictionalized version of a 1970s-era scandal that sent seven members of Congress to jail on charges of bribery and conspiracy. “Abscam” was the FBI’s code name for the operation that would have snared more lawmakers if it hadn’t been for leaks that began to arouse suspicion.
The con artists portrayed in the movie are appealing characters, and “American Hustle” is great entertainment. Wednesday morning’s Washington Post headline, “McDonnell and wife are indicted,” is the perfect follow-up. The boyishly handsome McDonnell and his wife face charges of accepting gifts and loans totaling at least $165,000 from a dietary supplement maker in exchange for apparently lending the status and prestige of the governor to the struggling business.
But where is the line? On a daily basis, lobbyists offer campaign contributions in exchange for legislation that benefits their clients. Apparently, money paid directly to a politician instead of the politician’s campaign is where the problem is.
It’s not clear who should be cast in the role of the hustler, and which of these characters was truly hustled. McDonnell says he did nothing wrong, that these were gifts from a friend and he did nothing concrete for the friend, Jonnie R. Williams, Sr. in return. Lawyers will have to fight it out and resolve who was the victim here, and who was the perpetrator. E-mails from Maureen McDonnell to Williams portray a First Lady desperate for money to finance her Inaugural wardrobe.
Over their heads in credit card debt, the McDonnells relied on Williams to loan them money and to prop up a lifestyle that included a Rolex watch for him, designer clothes for her, all manner of trips plus golf fees and equipment. Virginia touts its reputation for clean politics, but the state has notoriously loose ethics laws, and that’s what McDonnell is basing his defense on. It’s not illegal in Virginia to accept gifts from a friend, so it’s not state laws that McDonnell has run afoul of – it’s a federal indictment brought by the U.S. Attorney.
In Abscam and in “American Hustle”, we see politicians promise something in return for the bags of money they’re handed. That’s illegal, and to convict McDonnell, the prosecutor will have to prove that Williams received something tangible in return for the gifts he showered on the First Family. When we look at the influence that lobbyists and big donors have on our political process, it’s an easy judgment to reach that we have the best government that money can buy, bought and paid for by those lobbyists and donors, not the taxpayers.
The examination of the relationship between a rising star in the Republican party, which McDonnell was before he got pulled down by scandal, and a prominent constituent active in the business community raises legal and ethical questions about where the line is for receiving gifts. Lobbyists on the federal level are regulated. There’s a cap on how much money they can donate to a politician’s campaign or war chest, and they can’t freely pick up the check for expensive meals and golf trips the way they once could.
Personal gifts as opposed to campaign donations are another matter. McDonnell insists he has done nothing wrong. He admits only to poor judgment in giving his benefactor, Mr. Williams, the entrée that he did to the governor’s office. But no law was passed to benefit Williams, and it will be up to the prosecutor to put a value on that entrée to build a case.
It’s quite possible that McDonnell and his wife, who is as deeply implicated as her husband, will not be convicted. Whatever the outcome of the court case, rough justice has already been rendered. McDonnell’s once bright political career is over, and the money problems that he and his wife sought to ease through dubious means will be compounded by the legal mess they brought upon themselves. It’s the downside of a hustle gone bad in real life, just like in the movies. More importantly, it’s the downside of a political system that is open to the highest bidders.
© 2014 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.